Middle Managers and Strategic Direction

photo of river in Japan
Strategy Flows Through the Middle (Photo of a river in Japan)

Have you been working as an entry-level librarian and are itching for change? Is your supervisor putting you into new leadership roles? Have you started supervising others? Do you aspire to lead a library one day? Welcome to the ladder rung called middle management—the path to upper administration as well as a destination in its own right.

Let me share how I’m defining middle management. Middle managers within libraries include heads of departments, units, or branches (Mosley 2004). In addition, Diamond (2011) includes project managers and team leaders. Within an academic library, any manager below the level of the associate and assistant deans can be considered a middle manager. In contrast, management literature outside of libraries generally specifies that middle management and front-line management are different from one another. In this post, I’m focusing on the middle managers just below the top administration.

If you want to be one of these middle managers, save yourself a world of frustration by accepting that strategy will flow through you—not originate with you.

A large part of your job—some would say the sole purpose of your job—is to implement strategic directions for the library. Yet, you don’t have the leeway to set those strategies. You get those strategic directions from the library administration. If your library practices participatory management, the direction may have come from you originally in context of one-on-one conversations with your supervisor or in a management group. You may have ample opportunity to question and ask for refinements. Or you may not. Regardless of how directive or participatory the strategic directions are, administration’s job is to set the strategy and middle management’s job is to implement.

When a new strategic direction emerges, it’s time to decide if your department can accomplish its part of the plan with existing resources. Your circle of influence is within your own department and among your middle management peers. Look for efficiencies and winnow out the work that no longer supports strategy. If you then need resources, ask for them. It doesn’t mean that you’ll get these things. After all, all the other middle managers are asking for the slices from the same pie. But you hold the insights about what is happening on your own front lines. Don’t hoard that information. Advocating for people, equipment, space, or money to accomplish your department’s part of the strategic plan is part of your job, too.

This is a sobering view of the power—or, rather, lack of power—in middle management.

If you are working in a library now, I hope that you’ll comment on how what I’ve written matches up with what you experience in your own library. Is it clear who sets strategic direction in your library and who implements? Are resources allocated according to strategic direction or some other criteria?

Read more:

Diamond, T., ed. (2011) Middle Management in Academic and Public Libraries. Libraries Unlimited: Santa Barbara, CA.

Mosley, P. A. (2004). Transitioning from Librarian to Middle Manager. Libraries Unlimited: Westport, CT.

Osterman, P. (2008). The Truth about Middle Managers: Who They Are, How They Work, Why They Matter. Harvard Business Press: Boston.

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